Lessons, hidden amid bluebirds and sunflowers and marshes, line a lazy trail that follows the contour of the Patuxent River. And to learn them, students of nature don't even have to get their feet wet.
The wildlife and land by the water are the teachers, conservationists say, and what they teach remains unchanged: Save the natural resources of the Chesapeake Bay.
From noon until 3 p.m. tomorrow and for the next three Sundays, the public is invited to visit this natural classroom in Upper Marlboro and to take part in a driving tour, as part of the state's fourth month-long Party on the Bay celebration.
And as part of an effort to educate the public about restoring thbay, activities for the month also include crab feasts, fishing tournaments and environmental exhibits.
"The driving tour doesn't have all of the hoopla of food and music [like the other Party on the Bay activities]. It's a much more tranquil event," said Eleanor Falk of the Governor's Chesapeake Bay communications office.
The self-guided tour, called the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Driving Tour, starts at the entrance to the Jug Bay Natural Area of the Patuxent River Park on Croom Airport Road in Croom and ends at the Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary.
The "critical area" includes the bay and its tributaries, such as the Patuxent, as well as the land underneath those bodies of water and the land within a 1,000 feet of them, according to Tom Ventre, a staff planner for the Critical Area Commission.
Surrounding zones important to the vitality of the bay include the wetlands, which serve as breeding grounds for wildlife, and the forest buffer zones, which protect the area from soil erosion.
Signs explaining the historical and ecological importance of the area mark the trail. "The interpretive messages that are on the driving tour talk about how important it is to protect the natural resources," said Greg Lewis, a nature facility program manager for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
Historical evidence of human habitation along the shores of the Patuxent dates back more than 8,000 years, where primitive tribes of American Indians lived until New World colonists began developing port towns there in the late 1600s. Commerce on the river continued until the early 20th century.
Although development has replaced some of the natural vegetation along portions of the Patuxent, the river remains a vital tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, and the efforts to protect it are serving as a model for how to save and protect the bay.
"The Patuxent River is like a microcosm of the bay," said Mr. Lewis. Like the bay, the Patuxent has a freshwater influence, a marshy area in which freshwater and saltwater mix and an area of commercialization, providing a near-perfect replica of what is going on in the Chesapeake Bay.
The shore along the Patuxent is also an area of concentration for conservationists. "What happens in that 1,000 foot ribbon has a severe impact on the bay," said Mr. Ventre.
Concern for the water quality and the animal and plant life surrounding the bay and its tributaries inspired the formation of the Chesapeake Bay Initiatives, a series of legislative acts passed by the Maryland General Assembly. The Critical Area Criteria for these initiatives, passed in 1984, calls for restrictions on shoreline development, designation of a forested buffer area around tidal waters and the development of local guidelines for long-term protection of the bay's natural assets.
"We're not saying don't develop -- just, if you must develop, follow these rules," said Mr. Ventre, who attributes much of the problem to the fact that "everybody wants a view of water."
Highlights of the driving tour include a 40-foot observation tower that provides an expansive view of the river and a boardwalk to the river that gives visitors another opportunity to get out of the car and get a closer look at the water. A 1,000-foot wooden bridge curves over marshland and joins Prince George's County land with state-owned land.
Black-eyed Susans, Maryland's state flower, line the route joining fields of golden sunflowers bending toward the sun. Bluebird nest boxes can also be seen as part of a Prince George's County effort to save the declining population of bluebirds in the east. Osprey nest boxes stand in the critical area to attract the brownish hawks.
And if birds are what you're flocking to see, the Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary and Visitors Center, which sits at the end of the driving tour, provides the perfect setting. The sanctuary is named for Merkle Press founder Edgar Merkle, who donated his land to the state in the early '70s, and was instrumental in convincing his neighbors to do the same, for the primary goal of reintroducing Canada geese to Maryland's western shores.
Picnic tables and benches are scattered along the route for fair-weathered lunching and fast-food restaurants are within /^ close driving distance from the tour area. Handicapped parking is available at some of the spots designated for exploration.
After driving the meandering route along the Patuxent, watching for eagles and osprey, ducks and bass, Mr. Lewis hopes drivers will realize the importance of preserving this main tributary to the bay. "You can't see those from your living room."
Party on the Bay events
Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum Crab Day. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. today. Celebrate the famous crustacean with crab races,
exhibits, boat rides, music and seafood. St. Michaels. (410) 745-2916. Admission.
Dorchester Chamber of Commerce Seafood Feast-i-val. Noon-5 p.m. today. All-you-can-eat seafood feast on the shores of the Choptank River. University of Maryland Horn Point Lab, Cambridge. (410) 228-3575. $18 for adults, $9 for children under 12.
Budweiser Crisfield Area Chamber of Commerce Pro-Am Fishing Tournament. 8 a.m.-9 p.m. today, 8 a.m.-7 p.m. tomorrow. Fishermen compete for prize money for trout, flounder and bluefish. Somers Cove Marina, Crisfield. (410) 968-2500. Fee.
Critical area driving tour. Noon-3 p.m. tomorrow, Aug. 16, 23, 30. A 4-mile, self-guided drive along the Patuxent River, beginning at Patuxent Park and ending at Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary. Croom Airport Road, off Route 382 East. (410) 627-6074.
Harford County Seafood Festival. Noon-7 p.m. today, noon-5 p.m. tomorrow. Enjoy shrimp, clams, oysters, also children's programs, music and crafts. Tydings Memorial Park, Havre de Grace. (410) 838-0800. $3 admission to the park, pay-as-you-go menu.
Canoe jousting. Noon-5 p.m. tomorrow. Canoe jousting competition on the scenic Pocomoke River. Sturgis Park, Snow Hill. (410) 632-2080. Fee for competitors.
Meander through the marshes. 1 p.m.-5 p.m. tomorrow. Take a half-hour guided tour through cattail, water lily and wild rice aboard a historic dugout canoe. First-come, first-served. Jug Bay Sanctuary. (410) 741-9330. Fee.
Osprey tour. 9:30 a.m.-11:30 a.m. Aug. 12 and 19. Take binoculars and see osprey and their young up close as a Department of Natural Resources guide conducts a one-hour tour of osprey resting grounds. Half-hour video included. Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary, Croom. Reservations required. (410) 888-1410.
Bike the Bay '92. 7 a.m. Aug. 15. Cyclists can enjoy a 14-, 30- or 50-mile bike ride through Anne Arundel County to raise money for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. London Town Publik House, Edgewater. (410) 987-3902. Fee.
Party on the Bay Lady. 7:30 p.m. Aug. 16. Enjoy a three-hour cruise with seafood buffet and music aboard the Baltimore cruise ship. Sponsored by Harbor Cruises, MIX-106.5 FM and Budweiser. Inner Harbor. (410) 727-3113. Admission.
Wye field day. 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Aug. 20. Learn about farming and the bay, wagon tours of agricultural research, meet the experts, crab feast and bluegrass music. Queenstown. (410) 827-8056.
Jackson Boat Show. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Aug. 20-23. In-water boat show and sales. Refreshments. Hances Point/Shelter Cove Marina, North East. (410) 287-9400.
Purnell Museum's waterfront concert. 7:30 p.m. Aug. 21. Open air concert beside the scenic Pocomoke River featuring old-time favorites. Sturgis Park, Snow Hill. (410) 632-0515.
North Beach Bayfest. Noon -6 p.m. Aug. 22. Fresh steamed crabs, ethnic foods, crab races, watermelon-eating contest, music, arts and crafts, antiques. Free shuttle service. North Beach. (410) 855-6681.
Bay Day at Rock Hall. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Aug. 22. Seafood, environmental games, children's activities, jousting competition, music. Go by boat or car. Sponsored by WPOC 93.1 FM Radio. Rock Hall. (410) 974-5300.
Maryland State Fair. 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Aug. 22-31. Livestock and agricultural demonstrations, seafood, rides, entertainment and racing. Maryland State Fairgrounds, Timonium. (410) 252-0200. Admission.
The role of native plants in the landscape. 8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Aug. 27. An all-day symposium for the amateur and professional gardener on the variety of uses of the Chesapeake Bay region's native plants in gardens and landscapes. Irvine Natural Science Center, Baltimore. Registration required. (410) 484-2413. Fee.
Port Deposit Heritage Day. 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Aug. 29. Boat trips on the Susquehanna, used book sale, food, house and garden tours and Civil War re-enactment. Main Street, Port Deposit. (410) 378-3146.
Volunteer Day at the State Fair. 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Aug. 30. Learn about volunteer opportunities to help the Chesapeake Bay, including Maryland's Chesapeake Cleanup Campaign and Senior Conservation Corps. Join tree plantings, stream cleanups, marsh grass plantings and more. Timonium. (410) 225-4806. Admission.